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Northam proposes DOC release prisoners with less than one year left on sentence

Gov. Northam is concerned for people in correctional facilities due to COVID-19, and is proposing an amendment to state legislators that would release some of them.

NORFOLK, Va. — In a press conference on Friday, Governor Ralph Northam announced he was proposing an amendment that would allow the Department of Corrections (DOC) to release some prisoners with less than a year left on their sentences.

The goal is to keep people in correctional facilities safe from the rapid spread of coronavirus that could result from a lack of social distancing. 

The General Assembly will have to vote on the amendment to the state budget when it reconvenes on April 22. 

Governor Northam's emergency response team seemed confident that the legislature would look favorably on the amendment. In the meantime, the governor said it was the DOC's job to plan for these people's release.

"They must have demonstrated good behavior and not be a threat to public safety," Northam said. "The DOC, at their discretion, will release prisoners who do not pose a threat to society or the safety of others."

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Re-entering prisoners into the community usually takes months, because officials have to make sure the released person has a place to live and three months of any needed medications.

Now, the DOC is being asked to facilitate the release of up to 2,000 incarcerated Virginians in a matter of weeks.

"In this situation, we know there are fewer economic resources available, and fewer rehabilitation and treatment centers taking on new clients," Northam said. "Advocates and community organizations always play an important role in supporting people when they return to the community. That role is even more critical now."

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Brian Moran, the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said this widespread discretion would be a first for the DOC.

"It would become effective immediately, and it would last for the duration of the governor’s executive order," he explained.

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